At the ripe age of 17 (a few weeks from 18) a local sushi restaurant took a chance on me. With absolutely no serving experience whatsoever, thanks to a recommendation by a friend, I had landed the job.
My previous job had been in a local country club, I was responsible for basic busboy duties. Making $7.25 per hour (MW at the time) I knew that in order to get out of my current situation (poverty) I had to become a server.
This restaurant was known for having strict management, but the quality of their food and reputation in town made way for a server working there to make great money. (It was a bragging point of my friend who had referred me of how much money she was making)
In order to secure the job, I had to pass the infamous “menu test” that many fail. It is a straight on, 1-1 with the owner. Face to face. You either know the sushi menu or you don’t.
So, having never eating sushi or attempting to learn about it for that matter, I set my mind to it. I couldn’t afford not to get this job. I created over 400 flash cards determined to get the job and pass the test. I had never worked harder for anything in my life.
I remember vividly studying flash card after flash card as I awaited outside counting down the minutes until it was time for me to walk through the door.
The standard was set early on. This place meant business. If you were to get a job there, you earned it - nothing was given to you. The Chinese owned restaurant was nothing short of a well-oiled machine. The restaurant name taking after the owner, we’ll call him Lee had positioned itself to be the hottest spot in town.
Getting to know the inner-workings of how this restaurant operated was equivalent to 4 years in business school. I had the opportunity to work alongside a man who had built an extremely successful restaurant from scratch, and up until the day of his passing had maintained the same level of work ethic, and outstanding reputation. The restaurant is still standing after 20 years.
After winning the trust of the owner, and becoming somewhat of a protege in my early years of working for him, I had the opportunity to become a General Manager of his second restaurant, a bar & grill. I had full authority to hire, fire, and run the restaurant as if it were my own.
Thankful to have garnished knowledge learned from “Lee” I thought it would be something of value to share some important lessons with you.
I now own and operate my own painting business with 11 employees. Without learning from “lee” I know for sure I wouldn’t be nearly as successful as I am today. Although I didn’t pursue the restaurant business in his footsteps, the lessons I’ve gathered can translate to any business.
Lesson 1: Separate Business & Pleasure
Working under Lee, I learned very quickly that he never mixed business with pleasure. He knew that if he were to compromise on that value, he would lose respect amongst his team. Once a business owner loses respect amongst his or her team, it can never be restored to the same level it was. There will always be that “thing”
Let me give you an example of how this hit home for me. After the General Manager job at his bar & grill, I moved to another city that happened to be a college town. Thankfully, because I had the experience of management, I was able to land a job at another restaurant fairly quickly. Having only had the experience working with “lee”, I had high expectations for how other restaurants were ran.
I was in for a rude awakening. I had gotten hired on as an assistant manager and it didn’t take long for me to see how low the standard was at the place I had gotten hired. Within a week of working there, the general manager above me (and the owners of the restaurant) had engaged in partying with the staff, taking shots on the clock, and fraternizing.
When it came time for the General manager to discipline the staff for being late, or for making mistakes, it almost came across as a joke. I would read the reaction of the person being reprimanded and it was never taken seriously. Even when the General Manager would give me direction or ask me to do things, after seeing this behavior, I never looked at him the same.
My approach was completely different. I knew this fundamental principle of business. I saw it through “lee”. He never mixed business with pleasure. You would never see him out with the staff after work or fraternizing at any level. Because of this, there was this separation between boss and staff, which is 100% necessary for running a business.
Some may say: “This is crazy, I work so closely with my staff, they’re like family. It would be weird if I didn’t spend time with them outside of work”
There’s a difference between spending time and making a fool of yourself to where your credibility is lost. My advice, know the difference between the two.
Lesson 2: Every problem comes with the gift of knowledge
There was one thing about “lee” that I admired that stood out from the rest. When things were crazy, hectic, or something was completely going wrong - he always had an answer. He always made sure his team felt calm, he would bear the stress that came with the issue.
He knew that if he showed any sign of weakness in that moment, his team would crumble. He knew that the best way to handle a situation was through calm and deliberate action.
He also made sure to use every problem as a teaching moment. To make you think. To make you learn how to solve the problem on your own. He never made it that simple to where he would just solve the problem for you.
As a business owner now, I always think about that any time my team calls me with an issue. I think about his approach, how he'd respond, how he'd handled it, and I emulate that.
I start by listening to the concern, and having an internal rating of 1-10 of how urgent the matter is. To my employee or worker, they might see it as a 10, to me, I have to see it for what it really is - how much do I need to personally get involved? Can this employee solve this issue without me? These are a few questions that run through my head.
I then lock in the solution to the problem, or my very best calculated risk. I then re-direct the concern back on the person bringing up the issue and challenge them to figure it out on their own.
Only until after they make their own attempt to solve the issue will I step in.
This not only creates better leaders within my organization, it creates this level of independence that will mitigate future calls and concerns when a low level issue arises.
Lesson 3: Know every aspect of your business
One of my greatest philosophies I teach to my small following on IG is surrounded by this lesson here.
The ability to truly know and understand the ins and outs of your business.
If you’ve ever read one of my posts regarding this topic, you’d know that I use the analogy of the restaurant owner who knows who to cook.
The reason why I use this analogy is, if you own a restaurant and you don’t know how to cook, and your chef decides not to show up, your patrons aren’t eating.
One thing about “lee” was that he knew every single aspect of his restaurant. I always respected that. There were times we’d see him cooking in the kitchen to help the kitchen catch up on orders, other times we would see him with plumbing equipment fixing the plumbing in the bathrooms. On really busy nights, you’d find him at the host counter seating and directing customers. He’d jump behind the bar to help the bartender make drinks…
He was a master of truly every aspect of his business.
The beauty of this is that he had full control (or as close as you can possibly get) of a potential outcome.
If the toilet was overflowing in the middle of a crazy busy service, we’re not waiting for a plumber.
If the host is completely overwhelmed by all the bookings, we’re not screwed for the night.
If the bartender was slammed, people could still order drinks
This has translated more than anything to me in my painting business.
When I first started my painting business, I had absolutely no idea how to paint.
But, having paid attention to “lee” I knew that if I were to be successful, I had to learn. This was no question.
So I did. I spent 6 months with my team actually doing the painting. I did everything from spraying, brushing, prepping, rolling, cutting. Along with the many other aspects of my business, leads, phone, marketing, sales…I now have the most important aspect locked in. Production.
So should something happen to where my team doesn’t show up, I’m still in control. My business won’t be compromised because my lack of knowledge, or my lack of care to learn.
This guy was more than just a boss, he led by example. His methodology was different than the norm. I have yet to come across anyone who is a harder worker, or more dedicated to the success of their business. I’m truly saddened to see such an impactful person pass on, but I’m very thankful because his passing has cemented his teachings more than they were before. I hope this has helped someone out there, in his memory.
If you’ve read this far, I want to share one more thing. In the Karate Kid, there was a moment where the teacher and the kid did the “wax on, wax off”… When I first started, at the end of the night we were responsible to clean all of the tables.
I thought I knew how to do it, you know, having been a busboy before and all. I dunked the rag into the water and went at it. I hear boots walking toward me… It was “lee”. Obviously extremely nervous and intimidated, I stopped what I was doing…”Sir?”
“You’re doing it wrong…Do it this way”
This man literally grabbed the towel, folded it into a perfect square and in the most perfect way wiped this table that left no overlay on the water, no extra suds.
This was my “wax on, wax off” moment. From there, I learned that the secret to his greatness was in the details.
TL;DR: My old boss passed away, he was extremely influential in my life and his teachings have translated into my own business today.